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Posted at 1:35 PM ET, 01/ 6/2011

Halt inspections, riders' council says

By Robert Thomson

The Metro Riders' Advisory Council voted overwhelming Wednesday night for a resolution that will ask the Metro board to suspend bag inspections and consult with the public about transit security policy.

The transit authority, council members said, should look into the passenger inspection program to evaluate both its effectiveness as a security measure and its impact on riders and their civil liberties.

Last night's meeting at Metro headquarters in the District followed a crowded hearing Monday night in which the council heard from more than three dozen people opposed to the new action in which transit police are randomly stopping passengers as they enter stations and examining their property for traces of explosives.

Richard Sarles, Metro's interim general manager, told the Metro board on Dec. 16 that the transit police would immediately begin to set up such passenger checkpoints, though it had no evidence of a specific threat against the transit system.

Board members did not ask any questions about the police checkpoints or offer any comments following the announcement by Sarles.

The council, a citizens group formed by the Metro board to advise the transit authority on rider concerns, was the first panel to invite public comment. The Metro board has not scheduled a public discussion of the new security policy.

Members of the riders' council last night had many questions about the policy's impact on riders, and expressed concern that the board was delegating full responsibility for this new policy to the transit police without so much as discussing it with the public.

Two transit police officials spoke at the council's Monday hearing and answered questions posed by the council members. Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn, who said he was unable to attend the Monday hearing because of family commitments, appeared at the council session last night and answered members' questions.

Taborn described the police checkpoints as "another tool in our toolbox" to disrupt potential terrorists. Transit police have long used an array of security measures intended to deter potential attacks, including high-visibility patrols in which many officers and K-9 units appear on the platforms, mezzanines and entrances of selected stations.

During their discussion before voting on the principles of their resolution, the council members continued to express puzzlement and concern about many aspects of the passenger inspection program. These were among the concerns voiced by individual council members:
-- Given that police are saying they know of no credible threat to the transit system, why was it necessary to launch a new program that requires passengers who have shown no signs of suspicious behavior to submit to property inspections?
-- How will the transit authority ever know when it's time to stop this? Answering a rider's question on Monday night, transit police Capt. Kevin Gaddis said, "I think until things change in the world, we are going to continue to do this." Does that mean the passenger inspection program will become a permanent part of Metro riding?
-- If a would-be rider exercises his right to refuse the inspection, what will happen to that passenger? Police have indicated that law enforcement personnel will observe the behavior of that person upon leaving the station and will take appropriate action, but will not say what such action might involve.
-- Police have said that would-be passengers who refuse the inspection can take their property back to their cars and enter the station without it. But council members wonder if many riders -- including those who did not arrive by car -- have any real choice about submitting to the police inspections.
-- Since the inspections are random, council members are concerned that they have not seen a specific plan for how police will handle arriving riders who have disabilities -- such as seeing or hearing -- that might impair their ability to understand what the police want them to do and why.
-- Given that there was no attempt to involve riders in discussions about security before this passenger inspection program was launched, what other forms of personal inspections might be added in the future?

YOUR TAKE: Were you searched by Metro? Tell us your #Wmatasearch story.

Now that the Metro Riders' Advisory Council has voted for a resolution that will ask the Metro board to suspend bag inspections, we want to know how many of our social readers have undergone searches. Share your story below or by using #Wmatasearch on Twitter.

By Robert Thomson  | January 6, 2011; 1:35 PM ET
Categories:  Metro, Transportation Politics  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock  
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I raised these questions in other posts, and want to raise them again.

Randomness Issue:

How does Metro define "random" as applied to the random inspections? Is "random" based on a statistical model? If so, what criteria were used?

If the police are inspecting, for example, every third person, how is the third person selected? When masses of riders are entering a station, how is it possible to pick every third customer? If a third passenger is being inspected, won't a lot of, so to speak, third passengers slip through uninspected?

Or is random simply defined as the officers' gut feelings?

Success in NYC and Boston:

Metro stated that the inspection programs in NYC and Boston were successes. How the NYC MTA and Boston T define success? Did either transit authority employ statistics or some objective measure to determine success?

I can't help but wonder if Metro obtained an opinion from its legal department about the litigation risks associated w/the searches. Metro stated that a NY court upheld the seaches on the NYCTA; however, local or Federal courts in the DC area might well decide differently.

Posted by: RockvilleBear | January 6, 2011 9:48 AM | Report abuse

The money spent for this dubious search would be better spent by having officiers patrolling the platforms. It would gives me a much more secure feeling to see the authorities where the target is. It may also mitigate the roudy kids that seem to feel entitled to harrass riders.

Posted by: alberch | January 6, 2011 10:35 AM | Report abuse

I was surprised by the people who view these searches as an invasion of privacy. I have no problem with searches of my bag, just as I have no problem with most airline security. I hope we don't need a tragedy like happened in Spain or England to change folks minds....

Posted by: rkay48 | January 6, 2011 10:40 AM | Report abuse

The problem with random searches is that they are random. Unless every passenger is searched, which is not practical, you're not really providing true security. If you search an innnocent person and find nothing dangerous while a person with a bomb boards a train without being searched, then what good would the random search be? If you're not searching every single passenger at every single station, then people with bombs will board at stations where there are no searches. There is no way that random searches can provide true security. It's all for show, and an expensive one at that.

Posted by: CAmira5 | January 6, 2011 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I'm thoroughly confused as to why these are being called "random" searches. I thought I'd read in numerous places that there was an actual algorithm being employed, something like every third or fourth or tenth person would be pulled out of line.

Which is it? Is it random, or is there an algorithm? They're not the same thing. The latter is the polar opposite of random.

If these searches are indeed predicated on an algorithm, then the idea is doomed to fail right from the start. All a potential bad guy has to do is see when people are being pulled out of line (every fifth person?), then get in line to avoid being that person. It's something even the dumbest terrorist could handle.

Posted by: dfranzen70 | January 6, 2011 11:03 AM | Report abuse

The terrorist win again by doing nothing. They changed are daily routine and took away more of our freedoms and rights. Its all part of terrorist plan.

K9s walking through the crowds provide a better chance of catching a would be bomber or shooter. Random searches are worthless and just a way for lazy pigs to show they are doing something besides eating donuts.

Posted by: sheepherder | January 6, 2011 11:07 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: RockvilleBear,this is what "random" means to the transit police: Before police set up a checkpoint, the chief picks a number. Say, 15. The officers at the station then count bags. When they see the 15th bag, they stop the person carrying it and ask the person to submit to a swab test meant to detect potentially explosive chemicals. Then they count to 15 bags again and stop that person.

"Success"? Listening to the transit police define a successful program when they spoke with riders on Monday night, it sounded a bit like a bureaucratic definition. They have no idea whether they deterred any terrorists -- or whether programs elsewhere have. "Success" means that the police carried out their mission without any problems. My translation: The operation was a success but your privacy died.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | January 6, 2011 11:18 AM | Report abuse

It is always about protecting us and trying to scare the beejeezus out of everyone.What every happened to Habius Corpus?

Posted by: maxsgami | January 6, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: rkay48, among all the riders I've heard from who oppose the passenger inspections, not one has expressed a lack of concern about safety. Last night, many members of the Riders' Advisory Council who question the program had no questions at all about the need to secure the Metro system against terrorist attacks.

They are concerned that riders are exchanging their privacy rights for an ineffective security measure.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | January 6, 2011 11:22 AM | Report abuse

The biggest argument police made for this policy was to 'throw terrorists off, and disrupt routine patterns.' They said if a terrorist knows routine movements of police and other Metro personnel, that a police officer is in the same place every morning at 9:30, for example, that these random inspections will scare a terrorist off. If this is their main reason for doing these searches, then there are many other ways to 'throw terrorists off' than this. Having officers randomly posted at station entrances shaking hands and saying hello, for example. Taking canines for a stroll on the platforms every now and then (it doesn't really matter if they can sniff for bombs or not if the point is to disrupt terrorists). After all, a policeman's greatest assest are his ears, eyes, and voice. Listen to folks; say hello to them. This will also help build rapport with the public.

Posted by: pswift00 | January 6, 2011 11:31 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: pswift00 is focusing on something I still don't understand about the police checkpoints, despite being able to ask Chief Taborn about it. The chief and other police officials describe these passenger inspections as "another tool in the toolbox" to throw off terrorists.

They have other tools that can throw off terrorists without throwing off riders. This particular tool clearly upsets riders. Why is it so important to do this particular thing, when other techniques -- such as those mentioned by pswift00 -- seem likely to achieve the same result?

These are among the issues that could have been aired in public before this policy change was implemented last month.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | January 6, 2011 12:12 PM | Report abuse

"Before police set up a checkpoint, the chief picks a number. Say, 15. The officers at the station then count bags. When they see the 15th bag, they stop the person carrying it and ask the person to submit to a swab test meant to detect potentially explosive chemicals. Then they count to 15 bags again and stop that person."

On what planet is this random? They pick a number - it's about as nonrandom as you can possibly get.

Posted by: dfranzen70 | January 6, 2011 12:21 PM | Report abuse

The same people that feel it is "an invasion of their privacy" are the same people that (heaven forbid) something DID happen on the metro would be the first to raise heck about it!! (Oh and those same people probably talk in public on their cell phones and have myspae and facebook accounts and are using computers - yeah real private)

Posted by: Redds1955 | January 6, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Metro police can't stop kids from harrassing random people, but I am supposed to believe they are stopping terrorism by looking through my Jansport and fingering my lunch and Sports Illustrated. This is theater at best.

Posted by: BlahBlahBlah314 | January 6, 2011 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Did you know a terrorist doesn't even need to go through the turnstiles to get to the train? Do you know how I know this? Because I was robbed on a train, and the assailant simply jumped the wall to the parking lot, which is likely how he got on the train in the first place. He was never caught. The cops said it happens all the time.

To add insult to injury, the next time I rode metro, the station manager gave me a sassy tone because my card showed an open jaw.

@alberch is right, we need security personnel, bomb-sniffing dogs, and so on, ON the trains and platforms, where all the people are. Not stupid random bag searches that have been proven to be nothing more than SECURITY THEATER. Real security on the trains and platforms will reduce petty crime and fights, too. If anyone cares about keeping metro safe, then we will implement a long overdue solution to this BIG problem.

Posted by: georgeboole | January 6, 2011 1:40 PM | Report abuse

I've commuted on the New York subway for years, and never once have I seen a search conducted here.

Posted by: Itzajob | January 6, 2011 8:05 PM | Report abuse

@ Redds1955 -- I am one of those complaining about the searches and I'd definitely complain if there was an attack on Metro and they'd spent much of their $25 million+ anti-terrorism grant idiotically and offensively instead of actually doing something useful with the money. And, I do have a Facebook account (with privacy settings to only share info with some people and virtually nothing with the public at large). Because I choose to reveal some things to some people does NOT mean the government should have the authority to make me submit to inspections on the way to work.

I wonder if you're one of those hypocrites who professes to love freedom but actually loves authoritarianism. I actually do value my liberties, which is supposed to be what this country is all about.

Posted by: nunca_mas_ | January 6, 2011 10:17 PM | Report abuse

@ Itzajob: I spent all of Sept and part of Oct in NYC and used the subway daily. I saw the signs in virtually every subway stop (usually on dry erase boards behind the station staffers) announcing the random bag searches. I never saw any conducted, but did see a table with several cops set up sitting down that appeared to be a break between searches. That said, if your point is there are barely any searches, that is true. Like the DC plan, any nefarious person could easily avoid them. The only people who'd get stuck submitting are those poor saps headed to work, etc, on the day and location the searches are going on, who are the nth person, and who don't want to be late.

It was very offensive to me to see the signs and the possibility of searches.

We are supposed to be a country that loves liberty. As an 11th Circuit (which is very conservative) judge said in an unanimous ruling against metal detectors for those entering a protest, "Sept. 11, 2001, already a day of immeasurable tragedy, cannot be the day liberty perished in this country?"

I concur.

Posted by: nunca_mas_ | January 6, 2011 10:32 PM | Report abuse

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